Today, while the blossoms still cling to the vine,
I’ll taste your strawberries, I’ll drink your sweet wine.
A million tomorrows will all pass away,
Ere I forget all the joy that is mine, today.
Many years ago, probably 1966 or ‘7, when I was a student at UCLA, my girlfriend, who was outgoing and socially at ease, and therefore the polar opposite of me, was on The Colloquium, I think it was called: some kind of Student Council, or Guidance Committee, or Student Council Guidance Committee, or – well, you get the idea. She was “in leadership,” as chambers of commerce like to say, whilst I, her eyes-downcast, shy, unsure consort, could barely get it together to be in followership. Anyway, the Colloquium had a yearly “retreat”, undoubtedly for the members to get together and Colloquy up a storm. I, as the consort, was invited along for the ride – a bus ride, as I remember, sports-team-style, with everyone crammed together for optimal bondage and fermentation.
Where did we go? I have no idea. What did we (or rather, they) talk about? I have no idea. Were there breakthroughs, grand hatchings of world-changing ideas, comings-up-with of new dimensions in human colloqui-izing? No idea, for in that era of my life, I was mostly on the Bernstein Plan: fade into the woodwork and hope nobody notices you, or far worse, calls on you, causing potential shame and humiliation, beyond that which was already in place, aplenty.
So, what do I remember?
Only this: on the way back home (yep, my memory skips the entire Colloquipalooza itself, though I’m sure it was groundbreaking and historic), music was playing on the bus, or wait, maybe we were all ‘group-singing’ (bondage and fermentation – remember?) the song, Today, by John Denver. It’s actually rather a nice song, and if you click on the link (go on, you scallywag, you!), you can watch the New Christy Minstrels performing it, and see and hear for yourself the Anita-Bryant-hair’ed, hands-prettily-clasped-in-lap’ed, Sunday-frocked girls, and the suit-and-tied, Ivy-League-hair’ed, pink-cheeked boys harmonizing it, altogether a pre-Hippie folkie vision of Purity, Goodness and Earnestness.
Anyway, you can imagine sitting there in the bus, having spent the weekend Doing Good, as we sang our little hearts out together like Methodists or something: sure, I’m mocking it a bit, but the fact that I still remember the goose-bumpy feeling of it forty-eight years later says something.
After the singing, I remember I sat there on the bus talking to a much older, white-haired couple, about “the state of the world”. We talked for quite a while, which was unusual for me with older people at the time, and, as I recall, we touched on most of the standard (but important) issues of the time: proto-environmentalism (“conservation”, in those days), why do there have to be wars, what’s happening to the world anyway, can non-violent resistance work – or will it take revolution, the military-industrial complex, commercialism, and all the rest.
As we pulled in to the UCLA parking lot, and wrapped up the conversation, the old guy extended his hand to me and said,
You’re a very mature young man.
I remember I wondered at the time, ‘Does he mean it?’ Or was he just trying to offer a little encouragement to a young, kind of lost kid who was basically an okay guy and in political agreement with him? Now I realize that it doesn’t matter, because I ‘registered’ his remark forever: here I am, almost a half century later, repeating it. Looking back on that young man who was me, I see that, to ‘him’, it meant, “Maybe I’m not that bad,” so whether the old man ‘meant’ it or not is irrelevant: it had found its mark, and I would always have it in the woodpile of emotional encouragments stacked deep in my soul, to draw on, during the freezing weather of my future. Fuel for the heart.
1973: I was a psychology grad student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. I was a bit more self-possessed than in my teens, but not much: each year there was a make-or-break test we had to pass, or be asked to leave the program. I had friends who had washed out, or been in the process of washing out, for years. It wasn’t pretty, and it ruined a couple of friendships, when I ‘made it’ and they didn’t. I’m not blaming the school: that’s probably the way it was everywhere at that time. Kind of like the Marines: they used the emotional pressure partly as a weeding-out tool. If you couldn’t ‘cut it’, you didn’t have it in you to function professionally as a psychologist: if you did – well, you were part of The Few, The Proud.
I didn’t doubt my ability to become a good therapist, eventually, with the right help, but the program wasn’t particularly geared to people like me: the ‘good ones’ were supposed to go on to become academics, researchers, ‘scientists’. As we went on, and my classmates seemed (at least, to me) to become more involved in their research, to spout more jargon, and to talk of finding positions in academia, I felt more and more like a fish out of water. I didn’t give a hoot about my dissertation, statistics, or reading deadly dull journal articles and books that seemed designed to impress colleagues, rather than shed light on human life. I didn’t want to know about “learned helplessness”, “cognitive dissonance”, or the primacy effect: I wanted to know what to do when someone feels their life is meaningless, why some people grow from grief while others collapse under it, and how to connect with people who were different from me.
I felt my adviser was disappointed in me for not being enthusiastic about behavior therapy, and sometimes it seemed like the professors were more involved in their internal squabbling with each other (“When he first came here, he never approached me for guidance, not once, so the hell with him!”), and their own personal problems, than they were in producing the next generation of decent, human psychologists. Again, I don’t blame the school – I was an idealistic, romantic kid who was probably slated for a lot of disillusionment, no matter where I went to school.
Then, a ray of light came into my life: it turns out there was a ‘breadth requirement’, which decreed that you had to take at least a few classes out of your ‘field’ of concentration, in order to ensure that you were, if not a Renaissance Man, at least not a Dark Ages Man, oblivious to anything not in front of your nose.
Joy! I took the first film appreciation class of my life, and I’m pretty sure I was probably not very rewarding to the poor teacher. A sample of one of my ‘critiques’ of an artsy art film: “This film was a one-hour exercise in mental masturbation: I could have gotten much more out of an hour spent in actual masturbation!” – to which the response was a very great many savage red pencil marks. But that class was my first realization that film could be treated as a legitimate art form (kind of like what Freud and Jung did for people), and the beginning of a lifetime of appreciation and enjoyment.
And the other ‘field’ I gamboled in for a semester? Poetry. Well, actually I don’t remember a lot about it, other than the fact that the other students (grad students in poetry, I suppose) seemed to be operating on a different level than I – a much higher level. Specifically, I remember sitting in class trying to puzzle out The Emperor of Ice Cream, by Wallace Stevens: While the other students seemed to be spooning it up like a big sundae, I’m afraid I sat there with brain freeze.
But this I do remember: I was talking to the professor, a remarkable and highly-honored man (I believe he won the Professor of the Year award at U.T. several times running), during his office hours, about this or that, and he suddenly started out to say something, then stopped, abruptly.
Somehow, I had a feeling it was important. “What did you start to say?”
“Oh – nothing.”
Despite my shyness and lack of confidence, I had an intuitive feeling about this, and pressed him. “Please – tell me.”
He blinked a few times, in indecision, then seemed to make up his mind. He cleared his throat. “I honestly don’t know if it’ll be helpful or not . . . but, well, it’s just that, uh, I think you’re the brightest student I’ve ever had.”
I stopped breathing. For one thing, I had been a total boob in his class, contributing nothing to the conversation: if I was the emperor of anything, it was melted orange sherbet. I tried to discredit the statement: after all, this was Tennessee, not Harvard. And besides, what would he know about me, or anything else, anyway? But, much as I tried to negate him, that dog didn’t hunt: this guy was special – he didn’t get that Professor of the Year thing for nothing. He could hold his own at Harvard or anywhere. I knew my major professor was a friend of his: maybe they had talked? But my major prof didn’t think I was all that big a deal, anyway, so that didn’t make any sense.
My mind continued on though, trying to discredit, negate, and nullify:
Oh, I get it: he knows I need a little shot in the arm, and this is his way of administering it. That’s why he hesitated so much: he’s a decent fellow, and so it took him a while to make up his mind whether a lie for a good purpose was justified. That’s why he’s such a good teacher: he knows how to motivate people, how to inspire them, and this is what he decided I needed.
We didn’t mention it again, then or ever. He seemed uncomfortable with having said it to me, like something you do that’s out of character, and then have to live with. I guessed it was possible he might have meant it, that his hesitation might have been because he was afraid it would ‘go to my head’, but I would never know.
What I do know is that that one little sentence has stayed with me for the rest of my life. It has buoyed me through some very hard times, when I thought I was stupid, a loser, a lightweight, a dope. When I’ve been put down by people who thought they were superior. When my ability, my talents, my credentials have been questioned.
Two little statements, from decades ago:
You’re a very mature young man.
You’re the brightest student I’ve ever had.
True? False? Well-intended ‘manipulations’, or sincere statements of truth? It doesn’t matter. I took them and ran with them. And I don’t mind saying that there were times when I clung to those statements, and others like them that I have filed away, deep inside, like a drowning man to a life ring.
And now that I’m the ‘elder’, and in a position to do this for others, I never hesitate to bestow laurels of encouragement, in my professional life or otherwise. I doesn’t cost you anything to compliment someone on something that’s true, or acknowledge them, whether it’s minor or deeply meaningful:
You have the most interesting sense of humor.
You have a real soul.
It’s so unusual to find someone with a sense of personal ethics.
To have gotten as far as you have, coming from your background, is remarkable.
So, if you’re an elder, or in a position of authority, or just realize that someone looks up to you, don’t waste the opportunity to say something positive, something for that person’s ‘woodpile’ against the winter winds. Don’t assume “it’s obvious,” because it isn’t.
So often I’ve had couples come to me for help and one person says, “I need to hear some words of love or appreciation sometimes,” and the other person says, “Well, I’m sitting here, right? That should be enough!” No, it’s not enough! Patients have often told me about kind words, encouraging words, personal words, that a teacher, or a neighbor, or a friend, said to them many years before, that have sustained them in the face of despair or loss or failure. Despair, loss and failure: those are obvious. Love is not obvious. It’s fragile – it needs to be expressed, manifested, and nurtured like a hothouse flower.
So, today, while the blossoms still cling to the vine, open your mouth and let out some of that love you’ve been hiding inside. Just look around you: someone you know is dying for someone to believe in him or her, dying for a little encouragement.
Today is the day.
Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.